“Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies…”

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“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”

By Elizabeth Cutright

This week marks the 200-year anniversary of the publication of one of my most favorite novels, Pride and Prejudice. While most people are familiar with the basic story – either through various BBC/Hollywood incarnations, or the Bridget Jones homage – in truth the language Jane Austen uses to tell her story of proud, judgmental and class-cross lovers plays a close second to plot in reasons why the novel is so beloved.

For example, when Mr. D’Arcy first proposes to Elizabeth, her fiery rejection is glorious.

‘From the very beginning- from the first moment, I may almost say–of my acquaintance with you, your manners, impressing me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others, were such as to form that groundwork of disapprobation on which succeeding events have built so immoveable a dislike; and I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry.’

And haven’t we all, at some point or another, given someone a piece of our mind only to find that after the tumult and the firestorm subsides, we feel a bit baffled, a bit empty, and a bit unsure of what we so sure about moments ago? After Elizabeth puts D’Arcy in his place, she’s left alone to reflect on what’s she’s said, and her confusion and consternation feels just as timely today as when it was written.

” The tumult of her mind was now painfully great. She knew not how to support herself, and from actual weakness sat down and cried for half-an-hour. Her astonishment, as she reflected on what had passed, was increased by every review of it. That she should receive an offer of marriage from Mr. Darcy! That he should have been in love with her for so many months! So much in love as to wish to marry her in spite of all the objections which had made him prevent his friend’s marrying her sister, and which must appear at least with equal force in his own case–was almost incredible!–it was gratifying to have inspired unconsciously so strong an affection. But his pride, his abominable pride–his shameless avowal of what he had done with respect to Jane–his unpardonable assurance in acknowledging, though he could not justify it, and the unfeeling manner in which he had mentioned Mr. Wickham, his cruelty towards whom he had not attempted to deny, soon overcame the pity which the consideration of his attachment had for a moment excited. She continued in very agitating reflections till the sound of Lady Catherine’s carriage made her feel how unequal she was to encounter Charlotte’s observation, and hurried her away to her room.”

Who wouldn’t love to be on the receiving end of this humbling speech from an ex-lover?

“What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”

And then, of course, this lovely bit at the end when Elizabeth asks D’Arcy why he was silent about his feelings for so long…

“What made you so shy of me when you first called, and afterward dined here? Why, especially, when you called, did you look as if you did not care about me?’

‘Because you were grave and silent, and gave me no encouragement.’

‘But I was embarrassed.’

‘And so was I.’

‘You might have talked to me more when you came to dinner.’

‘A man who had felt less, might.’

Swoon!

Pride and Prejudice can fool you into thinking your reading a fairly predictable romance, but look a little closer and you’ll see the sly trick Austen is playing on the reader. Amongst the narrative twists and turns, you’ll find a world that’s not so different from the one we live in today.

“There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well,” confesses Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. “The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense,”; a timely sentiment, no matter what the era.

Elizabeth Bennett is one of my favorite literary heroines. She’s not perfect; she makes some silly assumptions and perhaps demands too much from her friends and family. She expects much from those she loves and finds herself startled on more than one occasion when what she’s confronted with a truth that completely negates her assumption. She’s smart enough to understand the injustice of the society she inhabits, but can be blind to her own awareness of the realities that shape her world.

Last year, when I first started this blog, I used the opening section of Pride and Prejudice for a writing exercise, for a writing exercise. I transformed Mrs. Bennett’s conversation with her long-suffering husband over the marriageability of their brood of daughters and the eligible bachelor who’s just arrived in their neck of the woods, into a meditation on making tuna sandwiches. It was fun to play around with a piece of writing that’s so familiar, and trying out different genres or writing styles can sometimes help bring a fresh perspective to your own literary efforts.

So happy birthday Pride and Prejudice! If you ask me, you don’t look a day over 50…

Click here for Slate’s slideshow on the Pride and Prejudice book-cover evolution.

And for those Colin Firth fans, YouTube comes to the rescue with Mr. D’Arcy’s first proposal…

Also, see if you agree with Rachel Syme, who writes in Slate, “You deserve better than Mr. Darcy.”

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